Out with retirement, it's time to welcome coming of 'third age'

15th January 2010 at 00:00
With the shrinking of the working-age population, learning opportunities must be created for all

Scotland must ditch strict definitions of retirement ages. And it should increase the proportion of part-time students if the country is to reap maximum benefits from its educational institutions.

Those were two of the most striking messages at a national forum on part- time education held in Glasgow this week. There was also a call to divert funds from learning for pleasure alone.

Willy Roe, chair of Skills Development Scotland, looked ahead to the inexorable shrinking of the working-age population.

Whereas England could expect millions of migrant workers to arrive and pick up the slack, Scotland's population was expected to remain stable - so the increased productivity of Scottish workers was "critical".

More part-time learning opportunities would have to be created for all ages. Too many young people did not have the right skills, Mr Roe said, and it was time to ditch the "outdated" idea of fixed retirement ages.

Finland had shown the way ahead by identifying the "third age" - the time of life between traditional retirement age and the moment when a person needs to be cared for - as crucial to prosperity.

Mr Roe said older workers, in almost all jobs, could be as productive as younger people, yet they were much less likely to undergo training: only 10 per cent of apprentices were over 50.

Research had shown that adding a single year to the retirement age could increase gross domestic product by 2 per cent.

Companies such as Bamp;Q led the way. It had enjoyed "enormous benefits" by recruiting older people, who had improved customer care, were knowledgeable about products, and had a long-term commitment to the company. The Prince of Wales, too, had innovated by starting an initiative for mature entrepreneurs.

Mr Roe added that it was "hard to justify" putting public money towards learning for pleasure when there were "huge demands" for training in literacy and numeracy. Instead, it should go towards skills that would boost the economy. Colleges are already under pressure from the Scottish Funding Council to make sure their courses are aligned with economic needs.

Janet Lowe, chair of the joint skills committee of the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland, pointed out that Scotland did not capitalise on having the most highly-qualified population in the UK: England, despite lagging behind in terms of qualifications, was more productive than Scotland.

Dr Lowe called for greater exposure of students to the workplace, to improve employability. There were also too few opportunities for people with work-based qualifications, such as modern apprenticeships, to progress to degree level. Work placements should be for part-time learners, not only full-time students, she added.

Peter Syme, director of the Open University in Scotland, which organised the forum, insisted that the 60:40 split in full-time and part-time learners in Scottish further and higher education was not sustainable. It was too expensive for the country as a whole, he suggested.

And, while many people wanted to broaden their skills and increase their employability, they could not afford to give up their existing jobs and embark on full-time courses.

Having more of a "level playing field" of full-time and part- time learners, he said, would represent an "enormous game-changing opportunity".

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